I am 35.
And, like so many women, I’ve often been hit with what people mean as a compliment: “But you don’t look your age!” Cue the world-weary response: “What is my age meant to look like?” The ‘compliment’, usually uttered by 20-somethings, is indicative of a particular worldview: ageing is bad, young is better.
I am genuinely curious though. In my age-addled mind, I wonder what people think the 30s should look like. For that matter, what should the 40s look like? In fact, once past our teenage years where we’re all generally in the apple-cheeked flush of youth, there is no clear-cut archetype of what a specific age looks like.
More than curious, I am genuinely bewildered by the anti-ageing standpoint. Ageing is a beautiful thing. It is one of a handful of life’s little items that you have no control over. The pressure is off you. You just have to be. Your age takes care of itself. Like the night breaking into day, it just happens.
And yet it is still a fascination; a throbbing sore tooth that must, every few minutes, be probed with an inquiring tongue. We are obsessed with ageing and we do everything in our collective power to reverse nature’s clock. In 2014, the anti-ageing market in the US came in at over one billion dollars. To put that into perspective, you could buy the most expensive Ferrari ever made, take the family for a jet tour around the world, and settle on a private island. And still be left with pocket change.
So, we are obviously paying handsomely for anything that could stave off a few wrinkles. Yet at the same time, there is evidence of a ‘natural is beautiful’ groundswell that hints at an exciting new direction.
THE TRULY SILVER SCREEN
When some of the most ageist institutions themselves herald a changing of the guard, we know things are (as the young’uns would say) lit.
Earlier this year, Alicia Keys, 35, who earns her living in a cut-throat, age-obsessed industry, spoke out on the importance of women being authentic and not conforming to social pressure. In an open letter online, she wrote about being fed up with“the constant stereotyping through every medium that makes us feel like being a normal size is not normal, and heaven forbid if you’re plus-size. Or the constant message that being sexy means being naked.” She explained her recent choice to eschew makeup, saying she didn’t want to “cover up” any more: “Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles, not my emotional growth. Nothing.”
Last year, fashion brand Céline unveiled 81-year-old Joan Didion, an American author, as its face of the season. Hot on her heels came legendary singer Joni Mitchell, age 72, for Yves Saint Laurent. A year before, American Apparel’s lingerie line Aerie had a campaign featuring 62-year-old actress and model Jacky O’Shaughnessy in lace underwear with her legs up in the air and a happy smile on her face. “I was game the whole time,” said Jacky. “I don’t feel that any of this is inappropriate. When people talk about age appropriate hairstyles, and age appropriate dressing, well, whose age?”
Hollywood has been fast to take notice. At the 2016 Screen Actors Guild Awards, actress Susan Sarandon, 69, gave the Giselles and Heidis a run for their money when she showed up in a cleavage-baring suit. Social media loved her for it. Amidst the anticipated shrieks of “Inappropriate! She’s too old for this!” Sarandon’s fabulous-for-any-age-chest received millions of virtual high fives.
Similarly, last year a Vanity Fair cover featured four actresses well past their 60s – Charlotte Rampling, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and Helen Mirren. The same issue carried a happiness survey and found that women aged 65 and up were “largely content” with their lives.
Research agrees. A 2012 study by Warwick Medical School in the UK surveyed more than 10,000 people who reported a better quality of life as they aged. In Denmark, women age 65 and up scored the highest on the happiness scale.
Women, it seems, are revelling in their later years, perhaps even adjusting to the nuances of ageing slightly better than our male counterparts. Fact: between 2011 and 2012, the demand for men’s cosmetics in the UAE spiked by 70 per cent, reveals research by global cosmetics firm Seagull. In 2014, UK consumer insights company Kantar Worldpanel reported that eight out 10 men were conscious of their appearance.
There is something endearing about men jumping on the anti-ageing bandwagon while women ease up on the gas. In 2014, the makers of Botox (ironically), conducted an experiment involving 2,000 women to assess attitudes to ageing. The researchers showed retouched images of women in their 50s plus the original pictures. The unanimous verdict: every single woman preferred the unretouched image.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
Refreshingly, even traditionally conformist societies and cultures are embracing the value shift. Bollywood, perhaps one of the biggest outposts in its dismissal of women past 20, is adapting to a new playing field. Champions such as actor Rani Mukherjee have spearheaded change by choosing to establish a successful career first before marrying well into their 30s. Mukherjee married at 35 and had a baby at 37. Fellow actress Aishwarya Rai also bucked expectations, and married at 34. She then went on to stage her comeback five years after taking a break to have a family life – at the age of 39. Now 42, she is as popular as ever with filmmakers and audiences.
Pushing the awesome bar even higher, Tamil actor Suhasini Mulay defied odds and norms when she married at age 60 for the first time. (Quirky little millennial plot twist: she met her husband online.)
Call it a new moon rising or simple acceptance, it’s clear that this is an exciting time for women. Scan the bookshelves or take a stroll online and you’ll find an abundance of literature aimed squarely at the 30-/40-/50-something and up female.
British author India Knight has made this something of her pet cause. Her books, Mutton and most recently, In Your Prime: How to Age Disgracefully, are eccentric, colourful and modern takes on ageing. One of her shrewd observations reads, “Take Madonna. Am I supposed to want to look like her? Well, no because I’m not a teenager looking for pop stars to be role models. I look to [notoriously unconventional British peer] Baroness Trumpington personally.”
In French Women Don’t Get Facelifts, author Mireille Guiliano also advocates flouting the norms, “Ageing gracefully is an expression I don’t like. Ageing with attitude is what I believe in.”
Where cause célèbre leads, media follows, and companies have joined the conversation. Last year, UK-based retailer Selfridges launched its Bright Old Things campaign, celebrating “the retirement renaissance.” The campaign features innovative, creative older-somethings who refuse to go quietly into the good night.
One of the featured women, artist and curator Sue Kreitzman, 75, sums up the revolution succinctly, “We now live longer, look better, and work long beyond what was traditionally retirement age. It really is a new world, and I feel that I, and those like me, are pioneers in a brave new world... of course, I am not really an old woman, just cleverly disguised as one.”